You’ve probably noticed that the rules of fencing are a bit complicated. Not to mention they also change often as both the FIE and the USFA experiment with different rules to make the sport attractive to a wider audience. For example, the FIE is experimenting with shortening the length of a bout for faster action that is more enjoyable for a TV audience. However, for the novice parent, the goal is usually to simply understand the sport well enough to enjoy your child’s fencing progress — then you can build on this understanding over time. You don’t need to become an expert, but we have seen some parents try to argue with referees about certain calls (this is a big no-no by the way!).
This post begins a series of blogs on the rules of fencing for the novice parent. Some rules may be a refresher, and some may be new for you, but we hope this series helps you to support your child and enjoy the sport of fencing. This first post will introduce the basic rules and the main parts of a bout. We’ll follow this post with two posts specific to the three different weapons: one on how the rules differ for each weapon and one on the strategic differences. The last post in the series will provide tips on watching a fencing bout: how to follow the action and enjoy the experience.
So, let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) …
Competitive fencing means to fight with one of three weapons: foil, epee, or sabre. Two fencers compete in a bout. The fencers score points by hitting an opponent’s target area: another word for the hit is a touch. The objective is to either score a certain number of points before your opponent, or to have more points than your opponent when the time limit expires.
Like most sports, fencers are expected to follow certain procedures. To start, the fencers walk to the strip fully dressed other than their masks. In foil and sabre, they test their weapons by touching each other’s target areas in order to make sure the electronic scoring equipment is connected and functioning correctly. In epee, they touch each other’s bell guards to ensure they are properly grounded and do not register a touch. They then take their positions at their respective starting lines. The fencers salute each other, the referee, and the audience. A fencing salute is not the same as a military salute; it involves raising the sword to a vertical position and then lowering it.
The referee will signal the fencers to get ready by saying “En garde!” (“On guard”), and the fencers then put on their masks and assume the appropriate starting stance. In the U.S., the referee may continue in English, but it’s not uncommon to hear French. The referee will either say “Prêt?” or “Ready?” and the fencers may respond, “Yes,” or may simply assume the starting position to indicate they are ready. The referee then says “Allez!” (“Go”) or “Fence!” A typical bout is the first to five points up to three minutes net time. The timer starts every time the referee yells “Fence!” and stops every time the referee yells “Halt!” If that total time reaches three minutes before a fencer scores five touches, the bout is over. To complete the bout, the fencers again salute each other and shake hands.
Of course, sometimes the score is tied when the time runs out. In that case, the bout is extended for one minute and the first fencer to score wins the bout. Prior to the start of the extra minute, the referee flips a coin to randomly assign priority to one fencer, which means that if at the end of one minute neither fencer has scored to break the tie, that fencer wins.
The referee may stop the action for a variety of reasons: a touch has been made, a penalty needs to be assessed, the situation has become unsafe, and a few other reasons that fencing cannot reasonably continue. A fencer can also request that the referee stop the action by raising her weapon and tapping the strip with her front leg: for example if she has a leg cramp or an untied shoe. The referee stops the action by yelling “Halt!” and then explains why, and awards points or assesses penalties as needed. If a point is scored, the fencers return to their starting positions. If the action is stopped for another reason, the fencers remain in position, or may be asked to back up slightly to ensure a fair start.
Points are generally assessed with the help of electronic scoring: meaning that the weapons and target areas can register touches and lights indicate to the referee, fencers, and spectators what has happened. This topic will be covered in more detail in our next blog post on rule differences for each weapon, because the way electronic scoring works is somewhat specific to the type of weapon.
Penalties are assessed for actions such as delaying the bout, making bodily contact with the opponent, failing to complete proper equipment inspections, or not following procedures such as salutes. Penalties result in the fencer being “carded” by the referee with either a yellow, red, or black card. A yellow card is a warning, a red card results in a point to the opponent, and a black card results in disqualification from the tournament and possibly expulsion from the venue or even suspension from future tournaments. Multiple penalties can add up; for example, a second yellow card penalty results in a red card. One important penalty to understand is that if a fencer steps off strip on his own end, the opponent is awarded a point. In other words, if a fencer is pursued to his end of the strip, he cannot avoid a touch by going off strip without being penalized.
You might be wondering what happens if a fencer disagrees with the referees call. Well, the fencers can address the referees after “Halt” and before “Fence” to clarify a call, and they should always do so with the utmost honor and respect. However, arguing with the referee over a call is unacceptable, for fencers and for parents. Moreover, any rudeness to fencing officials can result in severe punishment, including an immediate black card. The USFA recently strengthened these rules to purify the behavior of the fencers, a change very welcome by the fencing community.
Another important and often confusing aspect of fencing is “right-of-way”. In fencing, this term refers to a rule about simultaneous touches. Foil and sabre fencing use the right-of-way rule to state that if two fencers touch simultaneously, the point is awarded to the fencer who acquired priority of the action, or in other words, the fencer who was the last to make a clear action, being it offense or defense. If the referee cannot determine who had priority of the action, no points are awarded. For epee, both fencers are awarded a point for simultaneous touches. The best way to learn over time is to ask the coach or more experienced fencers (without disturbing the flow of the event, being it training or competition) why a point was awarded or not. With time you will begin to understand.
Stay tuned for our next post on some slightly more detailed rules and how the rules differ based on the weapon. We also recommend reading our beginners guide to fencing to learn more about different aspects of the sport.